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Epic Battle of Opposites: Irish vs. Tide in 1973

Discussion in 'College SPORTS Forum' started by TIGRIS PANTHERA, Dec 26, 2012.

  1. TIGRIS PANTHERA

    TIGRIS PANTHERA Freshman

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/09/sports/ncaafootball/notre-dame-shocked-alabama-in-the-1973-sugar-bowl.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

    Epic Battle of Opposites: Irish vs. Tide in 1973

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    Associated Press
    Notre Dame players after defeating No. 1-ranked Alabama, 24-23, on Dec. 31, 1973. Notre Dame won the A.P. title.
    By BILL PENNINGTON



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    Jacob Harris/Associated Press

    Notre Dame quarterback Tom Clements, center, in the grasp of Alabama’s Tyrone King. King was among the first group of African-Americans to play for the Crimson Tide.
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    Joe Raymond/Associated Press

    The opponents of choice for Alabama Coach Bear Bryant, left, were Ara Parseghian and unbeaten Notre Dame.
    From the broadcast booth, Howard Cosell, in the overtly theatric tone he summoned for moments like these, bellowed into his microphone: “This is the dream matchup: Notre Dame-Alabama. At Notre Dame, football is a religion. At Alabama, it is a way of life.”
    Thirty-nine years ago, there was a college football national championship game arranged not by computer rankings or a rubric of poll results like this season’s Alabama-Notre Dame matchup for the Bowl Championship Series title, but by the kind of primitive challenge heard in a sandlot.
    In 1973, Bear Bryant, coach of undefeated Alabama, sent a wily message from the tradition-rich football fields of the Deep South to a single football-centric university in northern Indiana. Bryant was taking his No. 1-ranked squad to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, and his stated opponent of choice was a team that Alabama had never played: Notre Dame.
    The undefeated, untied Fighting Irish, who entered the 1973 bowl season ranked third, had been tempted by a more lucrative offer from the Orange Bowl. But a dare was a dare, especially one with the national championship on the line. Notre Dame Coach Ara Parseghian committed his team to the Sugar Bowl matchup, a contest immediately billed as the game of the century.
    “It was the North against the South, Bear Bryant against Ara Parseghian, the Baptists against the Catholics,” Parseghian said last week from his home in Florida. “It had all these compelling comparisons. And it was played on New Year’s Eve, not New Year’s Day, so we had the national stage to ourselves.”
    Bryant called it “the biggest game in the South’s history.”
    Parseghian said a host of coaches from north of the Mason-Dixon line, and across the country, called to offer encouragement.
    “None of them had gone down there and beat Bear,” Parseghian said, laughing.
    Months earlier, when the season had begun, there had been little focus on Notre Dame or Alabama. Neither was in the top five of the preseason rankings.
    Parseghian, in his 10th year at Notre Dame, was fortunate to have the junior quarterback Tom Clements — a three-year bridge between Joe Theismann and Joe Montana — to lead a run-oriented offense. Bryant hardly talked up his team, which featured the university’s first two African-American players: defensive end John Mitchell and running back Wilbur Jackson, each in his third year with the Crimson Tide.
    A grainy 1973 film of Bryant shows the coach in a houndstooth sports coat being interviewed by three Boy Scouts in the summer before the season. One scout asks if Alabama will be No. 1 that season.
    “I doubt it, son,” Bryant said. “We’re inexperienced.”
  2. TIGRIS PANTHERA

    TIGRIS PANTHERA Freshman

    But Alabama opened its season by thrashing a promising California team, 66-0, and quickly climbed to No. 4 in the rankings, which were split then between a coaches poll administered by United Press International and a poll of writers overseen by The Associated Press.
    In late October, Notre Dame moved to the fifth spot when it beat Southern California, the defending national champion, which had begun the season as the top-ranked team. By season’s end, there were three major unbeaten, untied teams at the top of the A.P. rankings: No. 1 Alabama, No. 3 Notre Dame and No. 6 Penn State, which was headed to the Orange Bowl.
    No. 2 Oklahoma, with its new coach Barry Switzer, was unbeaten with one tie but was on N.C.A.A. probation and ineligible for the bowls. Rose Bowl-bound Ohio State had dropped to No. 4 when it was tied by Michigan.
    The U.P.I. poll in those days took its final vote before the bowl games. It awarded Alabama the national championship and placed Notre Dame fourth.
    “We received national championship rings, and that was nice,” the all-American receiver Wayne Wheeler said Wednesday from his Florida home. “But we knew the Sugar Bowl was the national championship.”
    And 1973 was the last time the final U.P.I. poll was announced before the bowl games.
    Notre Dame arrived on New Year’s Eve at creaky, old Tulane Stadium in a driving rain amid tornado warnings.
    “It was cold and rainy, and the synthetic playing surface was worn and slippery,” Parseghian said. “The field also had a big crown. I recall our punter practicing in the end zone, and he called me over to show me how the crown was so high he was kicking uphill when he stood at the back of the end zone.
    “I remember thinking that if we’re stuck in this spot, we’re not going to get much more than a 30-yard punt.”
    A Golden Foot
    Alabama had come into the game averaging 41.3 points through 11 games. But in the first quarter, the Crimson Tide were scoreless.
    Alabama receiver George Pugh said he thought the team was nervous. Pugh, one of a handful of African-Americans on the team, had good reason to be on edge. He had received death threats warning him not to play.
    “We were still in the middle of the civil rights movement,” Pugh, now a coach at Georgia State, said Wednesday. “The threats came in a letter, and the university added security.
    “So I think we were a little uptight at first. But eventually, we came roaring back.”
    Alabama matched Notre Dame’s early touchdown drive (the Irish point-after was botched), but the Irish’s Al Hunter returned the ensuing kickoff 93 yards for another score.
    Going for a 2-point conversion after the Hunter return, Clements called “Power I Right, Tackle Trap, Pass Left,” a Parseghian favorite that faked a run to the right from a bunched, two tight-end formation but instead became a pass to the left. Split end Pete Demmerle, a future all-American, caught the pass, and Notre Dame had a 14-7 lead.
    Bill Davis’s 39-yard field goal cut the Fighting Irish lead to 14-10, and in the third quarter, the teams again traded touchdowns. In a game with six lead changes, Alabama finally found its freewheeling offensive equilibrium early in the fourth quarter. An apparent wishbone sweep to the right was actually a setup for a throwback pass to Alabama’s backup quarterback, Richard Todd.
    Todd, a future Jets first-round draft pick, caught the ball near the left sideline and ran untouched for a 25-yard touchdown and a 23-21 Alabama lead.
    “Tricked us,” Parseghian said last week, still sounding a bit irked. “Good call by Coach Bryant.”
    Davis lined up for the extra point having converted 51 of his previous 52 attempts. Davis hailed from a family of kickers. Three of his brothers played on Alabama national championship teams, and his father, Woodrow Allen Davis, whose nickname was Pig, was the first player recruited to play at Alabama by Bryant.
    Davis missed the extra point. Alabama’s lead was 2 points with 9 minutes 33 seconds to play.
    “I do not know why I missed that kick,” Davis, who has spent the last 35 years as a dentist in Athens, Ala., said last week. “I’ve thought about it for years and years, but I have no reason.”
    It was the last kick of Davis’s career. He went to the sideline. No one said anything to him or reacted in any way.
    “No coach or teammate mentioned it, nor have they ever mentioned it since,” Davis said.
    He has not watched a tape of his missed kick, and when asked if it sailed to the left or right of the goal posts, Davis paused and said, “You know, I do not remember.”
    Wheeler, the Alabama end, said, “Most of us thought we had the game won anyway.”
    Clements, who went on to have a long, successful career in the Canadian Football League, led the Irish back, running three times for 25 yards and throwing a 30-yard pass to Dave Casper, a future college and professional football Hall of Famer. The drive, however, stalled when the Alabama defense made a goal-line stand.
    With a little more than four minutes left, Notre Dame’s Bob Thomas lined up for a 19-yard field goal. In the week before the game, the shoe company Puma cut a deal with Notre Dame to outfit the team in gold-colored shoes that matched their sparkling gold helmets.
    But the wet, slick field had forced Parseghian to order his team at the last minute to wear black turf shoes with more traction. The only person with a golden foot was Thomas, who nervously tapped his right foot seven times awaiting the snap for the go-ahead field-goal attempt.
    The kick wobbled and skirted just inside the right upright.
    “It was my most celebrated kick, but maybe the ugliest,” said Thomas, who had a 12-year N.F.L. career and is now an Illinois Supreme Court justice.
  3. TIGRIS PANTHERA

    TIGRIS PANTHERA Freshman

    First Down. Game Over.
    A 1-point lead left the Fighting Irish sideline jubilant, and the players felt more secure when their defense stopped the Crimson Tide just short of midfield. But the Notre Dame elation turned to worry when the punt from Greg Gantt was downed at the 1. There was about three minutes to play.
    “Suddenly, we felt we had the advantage,” said Alabama outside linebacker Mike DuBose, the Crimson Tide head coach from 1997 to 2000 and one of several players in the game who became prominent coaches. “We were certain to get the ball back with excellent field position.”
    Sylvester Croom, the Alabama center who in 2004 was named the Southeast Conference’s first black coach at Mississippi State, said the offense had already gathered on the sideline and had plays called for a game-winning drive.
    “No way they would have stopped us,” Croom said Thursday.
    After two runs up the middle, on a third-and-3 from the 8, Parseghian called another running play but signaled for Clements to try a long count at the line of scrimmage hoping to draw Alabama into a penalty.
    “We’re in the huddle, and Dave Casper says, ‘O.K., everybody stay onsides because we’re going with the long cadence,’ ” Notre Dame guard Gerry DiNardo said. “And what happens? Casper is the one who jumps offsides.”
    The penalty put Notre Dame back on its 3. Cosell set the scene from high above the field as the crowd of 85,161 stood. Notre Dame called a timeout.
    Parseghian was thinking about his punter kicking uphill from the end zone.
    “It was the exact spot from before the game,” he said. “I thought if we punt, they’ll get the ball at the 30 and we lose.”
    Parseghian told Clements to run Power I Right, Tackle Trap, Pass Left.
    “Are you sure?” said Clements, who had thrown only 11 passes in the game and would now be flinging one from his own end zone.
    Parseghian nodded, and then, to make the play look more like a run, he replaced Demmerle, the split end, with Robin Weber, a 6-foot-5, 260-pound backup sophomore who wore No. 91 and was used almost exclusively in blocking situations. Weber had caught one pass for 11 yards in the 1973 season during late-game mop-up time.
    “I did think to myself that it was wet and if Clements slipped in the end zone, we would lose on this call,” Parseghian said. “But the risk was necessary.”
    With seven players lined up shoulder to shoulder and three backs behind Clements, it certainly looked like a run. After the fake in the backfield, Casper was the primary receiver, moving right to left behind the Alabama defensive linemen. Clearing space for Casper was Weber, who lined up on the left end and took off downfield with a late break toward the sideline.
    “I had tackle shoulder pads, a lineman’s cage face mask, and I had never caught a pass from Tom Clements — not even warm-ups,” Weber said last week from his home in the Dallas area. “I had never run the play in practice. I had never run any pass play in practice.”
    But when Weber left the line, no Alabama defender went with him.
    “We completely overplayed the run; they fooled us all,” DuBose said.
    Casper got held up at the line, so when Clements looked to his left, all he saw was Weber with no one around him. The quarterback lofted the ball high and deep over the Alabama pass rush. Weber could not believe his eyes.
    “I saw the ball and realized this was for real — I had to catch it now,” Weber said, chuckling. “And then the ball hit me in the hands.”
    It was no easy catch, arriving over his left shoulder as he galloped toward the Alabama bench, but Weber pulled it in, took a few steps and fell out of bounds.
    “Next thing I know, Bear Bryant is walking toward me surrounded by red jerseys,” Weber said. “I got up and ran away.”
    It was a 35-yard reception. Notre Dame ran out the clock for the 1-point victory.
    The Aftermath
    Interviewed on the field after the game, Parseghian thanked Bryant for bringing the teams together. Bryant appeared somewhat stunned.
    “The way we had them backed up,” Bryant said, “if I were a betting man, I would have bet anything we were going to win.”
    Bryant later visited the loud, raucous Notre Dame locker room. He congratulated Parseghian and asked for Clements, shaking his hand.
    “I played a lot of football,” said Clements, now the offensive coordinator for the Green Bay Packers, “but I never had another coach do that.”
    It was still New Year’s Eve and the players scattered into the New Orleans night. Weber celebrated with his parents at Pat O’Brien’s, the noted saloon, where he enjoyed his sudden, newfound fame, a spotlight that has followed him 39 years later.
    “The catch still comes up all the time,” said Weber, whose junior and senior seasons at Notre Dame were injury-filled. “All the time.”
    Thomas, the Notre Dame kicker whose field goal won the game, met up on Bourbon Street with Gantt, the Alabama punter whose kick to the 1 nearly won it for Alabama.
    “The Alabama players and fans were great to hang out with,” Thomas said. “Everybody knew it had been a game that would be remembered for many years.”
    Gary Rutledge, Alabama’s quarterback, does not recall going out afterward, but the game lingers with him.
    “It was historic and a fond memory,” he said. “I wear my 1973 national championship ring, so I probably think about that game every day.”
    Bill Davis went out with some friends, but he said, “We didn’t do much.”
    Early the next morning, having breakfast with his future wife, Harriet, Davis read a newspaper column that suggested fans write Davis because he might be feeling badly.
    “I got about 40 letters from all over the country — all of them very encouraging and supportive,” Davis said. “They were from Chicago, from Oklahoma, a lot from Alabama and one was from Barry Switzer. I’ve kept them all these years.
    “It was a miss, but I’m O.K. with it.”
    That morning, Notre Dame’s DiNardo was also up and about, except he had not slept.
    “I’m not necessarily proud of this, but I was just getting in from a night of celebrating and I’m sure I looked the part,” said DiNardo, who went on to coach at Vanderbilt, Louisiana State and Indiana. “I’m waiting for the elevator in our hotel when the doors opened and out walks Coach Parseghian, Athletic Director Moose Krause and Father Joyce.”
    The Rev. Edmund P. Joyce was a Notre Dame vice president and the principal official overseeing the football program for many years.
    “Ara said hi to me and Moose kind of snickered,” DiNardo said. “It wasn’t perfect timing. But, hey, how often do you win the game of the century?”
    The 1973 Sugar Bowl had a different effect on New Year’s Eve revelers of all sorts across the nation. Newspaper accounts in the days after the game related a common phenomenon — the disruption of informal and elaborate holiday parties alike as people crowded around televisions to watch the riveting Alabama-Notre Dame game.
    The game had a 25.3 Nielsen television rating. The rating for last season’s B.C.S. title game was 14.0.
    “I heard one thing over and over when I got back home,” Thomas said. “People saying, ‘Our whole party stopped to watch your kick.’
    “I guess we’ll see if Alabama and Notre Dame can get everyone to stop and watch again.”
    This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
    Correction: December 16, 2012
    An article last Sunday about the 1973 Sugar Bowl, between Notre Dame and Alabama, misstated the academic classification of Fighting Irish quarterback Tom Clements that season. He was a junior, not a senior.
  4. TIGRIS PANTHERA

    TIGRIS PANTHERA Freshman

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    TIGRIS PANTHERA Freshman

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